Specifications Grading, Attempt 1, Day 0

Hello, ALPS readers! I’m back after a long summer and spring sabbatical, and am eager to get back in the classroom and talk all things pedagogy here on ALPS. I’m starting a new series where I outline in excruciating detail my experiences using Specifications Grading.  I’ll be sharing my materials, talking about the ups and downs, and reflecting on this unique grading system throughout the semester.

We’ve given quite a bit of attention to specifications grading in the past few months. I did a presentation on it at the ALPS workshop at the University of Surrey in May as I started working on adapting one of my own courses to this new system. I also consulted several former students and children-of-friends about what they thought of the system in abstract, and the general consensus ranged from “shrug” to “that might be cool.” Experts in analysis, my young consultants.

In a nutshell, Specifications Grading is a system where all assignments are clearly linked to course learning outcomes, given clear specifications on what students need to do to earn a passing mark, and graded on a pass/fail style system, where a pass is a high bar (typically a B). Assignments are bundled together by learning outcome, and course grades are assigned based on the bundles that students complete. So, higher grades go to students that either complete more bundles (achieving more learning outcomes) or higher-level bundles that demand students complete more complex work. The course also employs flexibility mechanisms such as tokens to let students revise or reattempt a failing assignment, forgive a course absence, or gain some other kind of benefit. This system is supposed to ensure that all students who pass the class are achieving the minimum learning outcomes for the course, but also puts their grade into their hands by removing the mystery behind grades (no longer 170 out of 200 points, but ‘excellent’ ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory) and letting them choose which grade bundle to achieve.

Check out our previous posts for more general information on Specs Grading, or check out this great community of scholars working with the system.. For this new series, I am going to write throughout the semester about my experience in adapting and teaching my research methods course to this system.

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Active Learning: What is it good for?

I spent this week attending a Course Design Institute held by my university’s teaching and learning center. The workshop centered on creating a learner-centered syllabus and aligning course objectives, assessments and activities. I thought I’d share a few quick take-aways related to active learning.

First, the facilitator presented evidence from STEM fields on the value of active learning over lecture-based courses. In particular, I was struck by two studies.

Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics (Freeman et al). is a meta-analysis that reviewed 225 studies comparing student performance in undergraduate STEM courses. This is the stand-out quote from that piece:

“If the experiments analyzed here had been conducted as randomized controlled trials of medical interventions, they may have been stopped for benefit—meaning that enrolling patients in the control condition might be discontinued because the treatment being tested was clearly more beneficial” (Freeman et al 2014: 8413, emphasis added).

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Beginner’s Guide to Simulations: Part 1, Reducing the Workload

Many of our regular readers on ALPS already use simulations and games in their classes.  But plenty of folks find us because they are interested in learning about new-to-them pedagogies, and want some guidance in how to use them in their classes.  For these folks, we are starting a new series here on ALPS: The Beginner’s Guide to Simulations.  This recurring series will focus on helping new adopters (and those who might want some reminders and encouragement!) work through the challenges of using simulations and games in the college classroom.

Before their first time using a simulation in class, most instructors face one or more of the following concerns:

  1. Creating and running a simulation is a lot of work…
  2. ..for little payoff. Simulations are not a good substitute for the tried-and-true lecture for learning.
  3. The simulation will take up too much time in-class, forcing me to give up coverage of important content.
  4. The simulation might fail, either due to my own mistakes or lack of student interest, and will therefore be a waste of time.

These concerns are largely valid, but not necessarily deal breakers. With more than sixty simulations published just in The Journal of Political Science Education and PS: Political Science & Politics in the last ten years, clearly there are a number of scholars who have found designing simulations to be a worthwhile endeavor.  In the first few entries in this series, I’m going to unpack each of these four concerns and propose some ideas and solutions to move us from fearful to excited about using simulations.

Part One: Reducing the Workload of Using Simulations and Games

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Zero Sum Simulations

I’m growing disillusioned with international relations simulations that are, by design, zero-sum. As previously mentioned, it’s currently “simulation time” and I’m running two different simulations. In my upper-level Human Rights course, my students are participating in the Global Problems Summit, which is essentially a mini-Model UN. Although some countries may “win” and others may “lose” with respect to the content of any resolutions based, the nature of the simulation encourages diplomacy and attempts at cooperation and compromise.

In my two sections of Introduction to International Politics, my students are engaged in the International Relations in Action simulation. On the whole, I do like this simulation and think it captures my learning objectives better than Statecraft (which I’ve used the previous four years). The scenarios are interesting and have encouraged the students to think about a number of international situations and appreciate the complexity of international politics.

But, one thing the students have noticed is that many of the scenarios are zero-sum. Continue reading

Process v. outcome in simulations

Chad's simulations were becoming a bit too realistic...
Chad’s simulations were becoming a bit too realistic…

Very occasionally, different parts of one’s life collide with each other, often after you’ve had a bit too much to drink, which further contributes to the further unrolling of the evening.

Any way.

In this case, no drinking (except of cups of tea) was involved for me this week, when I attended a ‘wargame’ of the British renegotiation of European Union membership. Run by Open Europe, the day had two parts, each intended to cast some light on what might happen in, respectively, the current renegotiation and then in the event of a ‘no’ vote in the referendum.

This was a high-rent production. Fancy City venue, live-streaming of the entire event, plus (most importantly) roles being played by People (former ministers and ambassadors): The British were represented by a former Foreign Secretary, Maclom Rifkind, and a former Chancellor, Norman Lamont. All of this built on a previous event in 2013 and given the number of TV camera crews from across Europe, it was not your usual event.

For all that, it was also a very strange affair.

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Simulations are just too amazing

Hell, yeah!
Hell, yeah!

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about simulations at an event organised by Peter Bursens and colleagues at the University of Antwerp. If we leave to one side how nice it was to get some many positive comments about this blog from people, then it was a really heartening workshop for more academic reasons.

One of the biggest challenges that users of simulations (and other active learning techniques) face is the lack of a robust evidence base that such pedagogies actually have an educational benefit for students, either at all or above and above ‘conventional approaches’. This workshop was directed precisely at discussing this gap.

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